China is becoming a place of unnecessary worries. Parents, in particular, have plenty to worry about: from purchasing safe milk powder from outside China to finding schooling opportunities for migrant children, from trying to give their kids an edge in the all-important gaokao college entrance exam to advertising their still-single children in spontaneous “marriage markets.” People would have been spared such worries if the authorities had done their jobs: wrongheaded policies, lax supervision, and rampant corruption are just a few culprits blamed for various scandals that have surfaced in recent years. In late March, Chinese people added something else to that seemingly endless list of worries: vaccines.
On March 19, the government of Shandong Province published the names of 300 suspects involved in the “illegal sale of vaccines.” According to the state news agency Xinhua, the operation lasted five years and involved the sale of 25 kinds of vaccines, spread into more than a dozen provinces and municipalities, including Beijing. It yielded an illicit profit of nearly $88 million. The Xinhua report states that the main suspect, a woman surnamed Pang, had been convicted of illegally selling vaccines and given a suspended sentence in 2009. But, nonetheless, she managed to expand her business before serving her sentence, with the help of her medical school-educated daughter. Curiously, police arrested the suspects in April 2015, but only recently has the case become public.
Once the news broke, it spread like wildfire on Chinese social media, igniting anxieties over the safety of the vaccines. It also sparked anger at the government’s lack of supervision and the media’s failure to serve as a watchdog. Chinese netizens, active on social media, responded angrily, especially parents whose children were potentially exposed to the hazards.
On March 21, popular actor Jia Nailiang, father of a three-year-old daughter, unleashed his anger on Weibo, China’s microblogging site: “Does anyone care about the vaccine problem? Where did the $88 million worth of vaccines go? What children received those shots? How many of those vaccines still remain in hospitals? We must investigate it thoroughly!!! For those who make fake vaccines, I wish I could strike you with thunder for ten years and curse at your ancestors!”
Two days after Jia’s call for an investigation, Premier Li Keqiang issued a similar order, which called for a “thorough investigation,” “improved supervision of vaccines” and a “guarantee of people’s health and safety.”
The safety hazards of the so-called “fake vaccines” sound scary, but they are not really fake. Instead, they are sold past their expiry or have been improperly stored in higher temperatures, often becoming ineffective.
Health experts have pointed out that such illegal practices are “murder” because for deadly diseases such as rabies and tetanus, vaccines are the cure. Other reports on the recent scandal note that in the past three years, ineffective rabies vaccines have caused several deaths across China.
That being said, the vaccine scandal is perhaps not as deadly as most other safety scares in China. In 2008, a dairy company called Sanlu was found to have added melamine, a toxic chemical whose high content of nitrogen makes it count as protein in quality tests, in its baby formula. This caused kidney stones and death among infants. Since the use of melamine was prevalent, a considerable portion of dairy products were removed from the shelves in supermarkets across China. This scandal was shocking because it was the first time when a daily necessity was found to be poisonous. As a consequence, Sanlu was shut down and two suspects received the death penalty.
The vaccine scandal, fortunately, only involves the category 2 (voluntary) vaccines, but not the category 1 (mandatory) vaccines that all children receive. The World Health Organization claimed that “improperly stored or expired vaccine seldom if ever causes a toxic reaction – therefore there is likely to be minimal safety risk in this particular situation.”
The reaction of the Chinese public, however, shows that specific details about the vaccines matter to them less than their overall concern with the authorities’ neglect. Therefore, even news stories that cater to the public’s demand for information are met with cynicism. On March 22, three days after the scandal came out, a news account on Weibo listed nine pharmaceutical companies that were under investigation, but the 15,000 comments showed concern beyond the vaccine scandal itself. One of the most popular comments read, “We have already tolerated melamine, poisonous capsules, Sudan Red, plasticizer, gutter oil, clenbuterol, milk with melted leather, poisonous ginger, rice with cadmium and expired meat…How is that such a big country like ours cannot guarantee the safety of our children?” In recent years, as various safety scares erupted, this long list of obscure chemicals and unsafe products became widely known in China.
China’s Central Propaganda Department forbade direct commentary on the vaccine scandal, and official media outlets followed the routine methods to gradually remove the scandal from public view. Chinese propaganda always uses such tactics when the authorities are to blame for the incidents. In the past year, the biggest disasters included an apocalyptic chemical explosion in the port of Tianjin in August and a man-made landslide in Shenzhen in December, but both stories disappeared from the news after an initial outcry.
Efforts to quell people’s worry are usually fruitless. On March 23, a Weibo post by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily tried to downplay the threats of the vaccine scandal. The post features a series of pictures with captions explaining the effects of the vaccine and its potential adverse effects. At the end, it highlights the sentence: “Most adverse reactions are trivial; they won’t cause death or disability.”
The post, though in line with the WHO’s claim that the vaccines presented a relatively low hazard, failed to convince people. One commenter mocked the usual government playbook for handling such incidents: “Always ‘inferring from one example,’ always ‘patching up after the damage is done,’ always ‘promising to punish with due severity’ and always paying attention after the problem ‘becomes big.’ Is there any use? What does the government watchdog do?”
Another reflected upon his own misfortune: “To live in this land up until now really depends on some damn luck!” Another said: “Even if we punish all the corrupt officials, our lives won’t improve…We simply want what many other countries have: cheap housing, free housing and health care, and uncontaminated food, water and air.”
An online commentary by the state-run Guangming Daily indirectly echoed similar sentiments, proclaiming in its title: “In peacetime, we should live normal lives.” The anonymous commentator pointed out that China has enjoyed 60 years of peacetime and 40 years of relative social stability, but the Chinese public has remained in a constant state of panic over the safety of bread and butter issues. The article notes a similar vaccine scandal that broke out six years ago in Shanxi Province, when vaccines caused disability and death among dozens of children. “Six years ago it was promised that the incident would be dealt with severely, why did it stop being severe only after six years? What can people expect in the next few years?”
Upon learning about the vaccine scandal, many parents in Guangdong Province have flooded nearby Hong Kong hospitals to get their children vaccinated, a similar reaction as parents who bought imported baby formula after the melamine scandal in 2008. Hong Kong hospitals, at capacity, could only turn away the excess of mainland patients that they cannot accommodate.
In the meantime, some Chinese swindlers have also upped their game. In one case reported by Weifang Evening News, a small local newspaper in Shandong Province, the epicenter of the vaccine scandal, fraudsters told one mother that the government had offered her $16,000 and an Apple laptop to compensate for the fake vaccines her child received. As soon as she was hoaxed into providing her bank information, the bank sent her a text message: her money was gone.
In the end, like countless other incidents, people’s pressing concerns about the safety of vaccines remain unaddressed, the authorities are not held accountable, and the media is silent. One Weibo post, written two weeks after the scandal, reflected the disappointment and helplessness of the public: “The fake vaccine incident that everyone talked about a little while ago is now silenced. Neither the batch numbers of the fake vaccines nor the names of the hospitals that still sell them are reported. What about the children?…I hope the government can do more and give our citizens a better explanation.”
But if the government failed to prevent the fake vaccines and other safety scandals, there is little reason to believe that the future will be any different.